Lupita Nyong’o stars in Jordan Peele’s new thriller “Us.” PHOTO COURTESY UNIVERSAL PICTURES
It's impossible to engage too far with the substance of Jordan Peele's second film, "Us," without spoilers--and the film is best seen the first time without knowing what is happening. So I will first say a few things that may encourage you to see the film, if you haven't, and let you know when you may want to stop reading before actually seeing the film.
"Us" is more disorienting than Peele’s first film, "Get Out." Although I found that film very scary, I identified the fear specifically with racism. "Us" is more subtle.
It's also more truly a horror film. Although "Get Out" very consciously makes use of horror tropes, the term "social thriller," which Peele himself has used, feels more accurate. It's scary in the way racism is scary. "Us" is scary in a way that I would identify as more typical of horror films.
And yet, in so many significant ways, it isn't typical. When do you see a horror film centering a dark-skinned black family? Where that family is relatively well off? When do you see a film depicting a dark-skinned black family at the beach? Buying a boat? When do you see a horror film (or any film) starring a black actress in two powerful roles? When do you see the great Lupita Nyong’o as the lead in a film? When do you see a film that depicts the humor and occasional fruitlessness of code-switching, as Winston Duke does here?
It's the first time or one of the first times for all of these and many other things--and the film is not really about race, at least not as directly as was "Get Out." Representation matters and Peele is conscientious about depicting a broader range of black experience without calling it out or making it the whole point of the movie.
I also especially appreciate the extraordinarily high quality of intention that Peele puts into every moment of his films. "Us" like "Get Out" is built for multiple viewings--and though that may make his films a smart financial investment, I am inclined to believe that money is not the driver. Peele has things to say, about things we most definitely do NOT want to think about. I suspect that part of what is happening--perhaps quite consciously--is that he hopes to break past our barriers to thinking about this important content by putting out lots of bait for us to come back for again and again.
So once again, even if you don't like horror films, my strong advice is to make another exception for "Us." Peele's work continues to be ground-breaking and important. He is doing things no one else is doing and showcasing work (including, here, from a uniformly amazing cast) that we don't get other opportunities to see.
And now let me venture into spoiler territory. Other important reasons to see this film have to do with the important ideas Peele wants us to wrestle with. They include the idea of privilege, our fear of the "other," the ways in which the comfort of some is intimately connected to the suffering of others, and how even marginalized people frequently respond to success by simply grabbing for what they can with little real concern for who is left behind.
The film depicts a relatively privileged family, the Wilsons, who encounter a family of scary doppelgangers who want to kill them. It's an inherently frightening idea, and we are quickly gripped by their literal fight for their lives. The only doppelganger who speaks--the double of Addie, the mother--keeps alluding to the ways the "real" people and the red-clad doppelgangers are connected, "tethered," and how the doppelgangers are doomed to live a life underground that fruitlessly mimics the lives of the "real" people. When asked who the red-clad people are, she answers, "We're Americans."
Much of the collective imagination of Americans is focused on keeping our "stuff," hanging onto what is ours, against grasping "others" like the poor who are too lazy to work and achieve what we believe anyone can, or immigrants who want to come and take our jobs, asserting bogus claims for asylum. We feel entitled to our "best life." Like the Wilsons in the film, we are to some degree swept up in the competition for it--and, as with Gabe (Winston Duke's character), our life inside of privilege may infuse us with an empty idea of power and rob us of much ability to decode and respond appropriately to danger. But the "others" are Americans too.
We very typically locate our "shadow" in the other. We comfort ourselves that the bad people are locked in cages for their crimes, which helps us avoid looking at the ways that those of us on the outside—above ground--are connected to what put them there or ways in which certain populations receive more or less punishment for the same crimes. Locating danger and wrong in others like those who are incarcerated or have felony records (or who live in “shithole countries” or come from some other disfavored group) helps us to avoid looking at the ways the rest of us are dangerous or perpetrating wrongs. We locate the dangerous and bad ones underground, as it were, like the red-clad doppelgangers in the film--our "shadow" is out of sight and out of mind. And yet, in ways we resist seeing, THEY are US.
Every once in a while, someone who started life in a position of deprivation, as a marginalized person, breaks out, as Addie did in childhood. And quite often--perhaps most of the time--they simply set about to get what is rightfully theirs, sparing little to no effective concern for others left behind who are not so privileged. In some sense, people with that experience, have more information about the connections between the privileged and the marginalized--but often the attainment of privilege eliminates any will to wrestle with the meaning of those connections. Like Addie, who escaped at the expense of Red (the “real” Addie), those whose discomfort is connected to our comfort are out of sight and out of mind.
Like racism, these are things we very much do NOT want to think about. And Peele is exceedingly smart to leave the connections more opaque this time around. As Jesus often said, Peele seeks to be heard only by those with "ears to hear." And he has crafted a film that is constructed to maximize the number who will actually hear.
Darleen Ortega is a judge on the Oregon Court of Appeals and the first woman of color to serve in that capacity. Her movie review column Opinionated Judge appears regularly in The Portland Observer. Find her movie blog at opinionatedjudge.blogspot.com.